During the ’70s and ’80s, Australian filmmaking experienced a gold rush of exploitation filmmaking that tackled a variety of genres. One of the most unique entries during this boom-time was Thirst, a rare Aussie excursion into vampire films. This one-of-a-kind blend of gothic thrills, class struggle themes and surrealism doesn’t always gel but its quirky, original take on a familiar subgenre is never dull.
The heroine of Thirst is Kate (Chantal Contouri), a successful, independent-minded businesswoman whose life is turned upside down when she is kidnapped by the members of a well-heeled secret society that calls itself the Brotherhood. They quickly reveal themselves to be an internationally-connected group of vampires who maintain a private farm where blood is harvested from ‘donors’ for distribution to the world’s hidden population vampires.
To make matters worse, Kate discovers that she is descended from the vampiric bloodline of Countess Bathory – and the Brotherhood wants her to join their ranks. She becomes locked in a battle of wills between Dr. Fraser (David Hemmings), who believes she should be treated with kindness, and Mrs. Barker (Joanna Cameron) and Dr. Gauss (Henry Silva), who are willing to use force and dangerous brainwashing techniques to break her will. Kate struggles to escape their far-reaching organization as she finds herself overcome with urges that she’s never felt before.
Thirst wastes no time, beginning in media res with an effective titles sequence that establishes the film’s intense style and hurtling through an array of ideas and clever plot hooks at high speed. The whole corporation and blood-farm setup is the kind of bold, clever setup you would expect from an early David Cronenberg film and there’s a pulpy, almost soap-operatic verve to the infighting between the members of the corporation. The one problem with the script is that it becomes overwhelmed by its array of clever elements as it progresses, eventually losing sight of its class-warfare themes and characterizations as it piles up the shocks and plot twists.
That said, Thirst works consistently as an excursion into style. Rod Hardy’s direction is pretty vigorous, establishing and maintaining a taut pace throughout and using Vincent Monton’s slick, prowling Cinemascope camerawork to give the film an angular visual style that reflects the story’s edgy, two-steps-from-madness mood. There’s also a strong score from Aussie soundtrack regular Brian May, who powers his sound with thunderous string/horn blends and throws in occasional choral bits for exotic effect.
Hardy uses the style his collaborators provide to give the film a driving, sometimes hypnotic effect. This is displayed most effective in a lengthy, interlocking stretch of drug-induced hallucinations and flashbacks that Kate experiences near the end of the film’s second act. It’s a real tour-de-force of stylization that veers from dreamy atmospheres to vigorous blood-and-thunder effects and creates the same surreal, vertiginous effect you get from the best Italian horror films.
Finally, Thirst boasts a strong cast. Contouri anchors the story nicely, creating a convincing and expressive portrait of a strong woman who is driven into madness by her experiences. Hemmings mixes subtle menace and charm to appropriately ambiguous effect while Cameron and Silva make a quality overt-villain team: Cameron enthusiastically chews the scenery and Silva’s leering stare is enough to give the audience chills.
In short, Thirst is a fun riff on vampire lore that makes up for its sometimes unsteady balance with an array of intriguing concepts and an energetic sense of style. It’s well worth including in any survey of Aussie genre fare from that country’s ’70s/’80s heyday.